Hans Urs von Balthasar, Presence and Thought: An Essay on the Religious Philosophy of Gregory of Nyssa
San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1988.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, besides being in contention for most magisterial name ever, was a Swiss Catholic theologian in the 20th century. He is important for a lot of reasons, but primarily (at least primarily for me) he represents a Catholic retrieval of Patristic writers that, unlike Thomas Aquinas, wasn’t boring and irreducibly nitpicky as all get-out (which is a technical phrase, look it up). As part of this project he decided to examine three major figures—Origen (3rd century), Gregory of Nyssa (4th century) and Maximus Confessor (7th century)—both in terms of clarifying their own thought and in view of contemporary theological issues. This book was a huge wake-up call. I haven’t used the formal theological bone in my body for a while now and I was reminded from the start that I am not as smart as I often think I am. But for those willing or inspired or too prideful to be shamed by a book (not unlike myself) there is a reward for stumbling through these pages.
Balthasar’s study of Nyssa centers around the ways in which finite humanity relates to infinite God. This discussion has a lot of context in the philosophical discussions of his day, but I want to focus on Balthasar’s insights in fresh light so, and you’re welcome, we won’t focus on these more technical philosophical bits.
The book is divided into three parts which can be said to treat the same problem from three different angles. Humanity is finite, has definite limitations, and God is infinite, always beyond anything we can comprehend. So we want to know how human beings can find some sense of unity with God. How can we reach God when God is always beyond our reach? The first part fixates on some metaphysical foundations that entail limits to human beings but also incites our desires for something beyond ourselves, and concludes with the thought that it is in the desiring itself that God is reached.
But this is limited by being focused on the human perspective, so the second part approaches the problem from the perspective of the image of God in humanity, defined as reason/spirit and love. On the one hand we operate as thinking beings who try to conceptualize things in order to understand them. But because nothing is ever quite how we conceive it—at least beyond simple description—the proper use of our reason is tempered by the other aspect of the divine image, which is love. Therefore real knowledge of something is to allow it to unfold itself in a relationship between knower and knowee, subject and object. It is in this way that the somewhat tragic end of the first part gets some relief: God is reached in divesting ourselves of our conceptual constraints and allowing God to be God to us at deeper and deeper levels. The concepts work only as teachers and guides, not as static, timeless definitions.
Finally the third part approaches the problem from God’s own perspective—that is, we’ve talked about the problem from the starting point of human agency/desire (first part) and human reason (second part), now we can try to think about the problem based on what God does. Because the image of God in humanity is corrupted by sin, God enters into the world as an act of love for humanity and establishes a re-newed image that requires that we divest ourselves of our corrupted natures. The purpose and completion of thought, then, is not in having nailed down eternal, air-tight conceptions of God, but rather for thought to guide our entire being into the love of God through an openness to an unending process of drawing nearer and nearer to God.
More than anything Balthasar reveals Gregory of Nyssa to be a powerful interpreter of human existence. We may have an instinct that wants to grasp God and put him in our pocket—to “rob” divinity as Paul puts it in Phil 2:5-11—but it always seems the case that at our best our desire outstrips our ability. We want to reach God but we always fall short. By identifying unity with God not in static Being, but in dynamic and active becoming, we start to see the beauty of our daily struggle for God each of us experiences everyday, without, at the same time, reducing our meager achievements as anything like the fullness of divine unification.
The second thing that stands out is Gregory of Nyssa’s notion of epectasis, that is, the idea of perfection as an ever-continuing process and not a fixed achievement. Each time we gain some sense of God in our lives it opens us up to a whole new perspective, rinse and repeat. I believe that is something confirmed by experience. These lofty theological ideas hit home on everyday experiential levels if we’re paying attention.
As the flame of a lamp seems always to be identical and is not, though, at any given moment the same, but is ceaselessly renewing itself and perpetually reborn, in the same all material nature is in continuous change. (31)
Since [human] existence is, so to speak, a continuous effort to maintain itself in being, its perfection consists of a perpetual effort towards God. (37)
The mystical works of Gregory of Nyssa are all built on the idea of a perpetual surpassing of self: «Always higher, always greater than oneself.» . . . . Once the soul has arrived at a new summit, it is as if she had not yet taken her first step. (45)
For [humanity] is too much one, the body has participated too intimately in the adventure of the soul not to have the same destiny. (62)
Human knowledge is therefore true only to the degree it renounces by a perpetual effort its own nature, which is to ‘seize’ its prey. (93)
The desire itself is the joy, the search itself is the view. But must we not in that case say there is a secret and unacknowledged sadness in this desire? . . . . All our happiness is in this failure. In shattering our desire to possess, it gives us eternal hope. (103, 106)
It is no longer a question of knowing how the soul can approach God but of learning how, indeed, God has approached us. Through a historical fact that is exterior, Christianity teaches us a historical fact that is interior. For metaphysics, it substitutes metahistory. (133)
There is something irreducibly satisfying about reading a work of formal theology. At the end of the day, after all of the hard work and effort, what we can gain from these works is so often much more powerful and formative. But I’m going to be honest: I was confused from the get-go. I read and re-read. I fell asleep reading plenty of times. I, no doubt, am misunderstanding this book in many ways.
During the reading and after I was done I continually consulted articles and books that helped me make sense of these ideas. But that’s what theology is all about. It’s not easy on purpose. The idea of armchair theology is quaint and sometimes tickles our desires to be sages among men, but real theological study—which I think everyone should do at some level—requires time, effort, and a whole lot of humility and/or humiliation. But it is worth it. So worth it.
Anyone who is interested in getting a taste for something truly challenging, or indeed anyone interested in the metaphysical dynamics that help to explain and encourage authentic spiritual growth towards God should take the plunge and read this book. Then call your nearest theologian and/or licensed practicing counselor to help you make heads or tails of it. Or, for fun, call your minister and watch them squirm.